The Lost City of Z David Grann

Simon & Schuster, pp.339, 16.99

It is so sad to read about the Mato Grosso now, at least it is for anyone who, like me, was a boy in the 1950s. When the vast rain forest of the Amazon makes the news at all it is in stories about economic predation, logging and genocide. The Mato Grosso has shrunk and become a victim, which for us was the ultimate in adventure, romance, and horror, with all of it so safely far away.

For it had everything: lost cities in the jungle, lost treasures, lost wisdoms, as well as savage tribes which could shrink your head to the size of a cricket-ball, snakes as long as streets, pirana fish that in minutes could whittle you down to your wish-bone, and those other, even more terrifying (if intriguing) fish, whose names we could never remember, which, being very small, could leap out of the Amazon along the arc of your pee and straight up your dick. And never come down again. But mainly the Mato Grosso had Colonel Percy Fawcett, an Englishman who disappeared into it in 1925 and never came back. It was Fawcett who held the whole repertory cast together.

Everyone had heard of him because of one book which became an international bestseller, Expedition Fawcett, compiled from the Colonel’s letters and notes in 1953 by his son Brian. David Grann’s book is the latest of many attempts to discover what happened to him (it is thought that a hundred people have died in the course of these attempts). But what makes it so different from the others is that it appears at a time when the world has forgotten Fawcett.

In the late 1960s I was a reporter on the Times, when, intent on establishing its credentials as a newspaper, it actually sponsored an expedition into the Mato Grosso, hoping this would result in lost cities in the jungle, giant snakes, and Fawcett. Instead it resulted in relentless, and very detailed, catalogues of butterflies and plants. So when one member of the expedition returned, it was suggested, rather delicately, that, to justify the expense, I should try to add some . . . I think the word was drama, or it could have been spice.

At first things went well. Very well. Where, I asked, were they staying? ‘Oh, quite near the River of Death.’ RIVER OF DEATH. I wrote it in large capitals, for this was where Fawcett was last heard of, and anyway you can’t go wrong with anything called the River of Death. ‘You made your base camp there?’ ‘Oh no, we’re in a rather nice Brazilian government guest house.’

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Bugger. ‘Meet any Indians? ‘Oh yes, the Xavantes.’ The most terrifying tribe of all, thought to have been responsible for Fawcett’s disappearance. Never seen, just the sudden ff-utt of a poison dart. Head-shrinkers all. I had practically written the piece. ‘You saw them?’ And then he said it, the thing that killed the article, and the myth with it. ‘Couldn’t miss them actually. They spent most of their time playing association football.’ The subs did their best, giving it the headline ‘At the End of Civilisation’, but it didn’t quite ring true.

And this is what makes David Grann’s book so interesting. Everything in it does ring true. No nonsense about 60-foot anacondas (‘the longest officially recorded one is 27 feet nine inches’). My interest in them had already taken a hammering when I discovered that one of Elvis Presley’s entourage had one as a pet which, when on tour, he exercised in the early mornings in hotel swimming-pools. Until, that is, an old lady decided to take a pre-breakfast dip.

No nonsense about visionary explorers either: Fawcett himself comes across as a mad-eyed beanpole who, commanding a battery of guns on the Western Front, used a Ouija board to establish enemy positions (though, on reflection, it might have been a definite plus had Haig had one as well). Fawcett contributed to Occult Review, a side of him which his son suppressed in his book, and his obsession with lost cities left his bereaved family poor. And no nonsense about lost cities, except that Grann has a surprise in store for the reader in his very last chapter.

The main drawback to this book is that he indulges in contrapuntal narratives, sometimes three at once: his own venture into the jungle, Fawcett’s expedition, and that led by a Brazilian banker in 1995 which resulted in a $30,000 ransom being paid to the Indian tribe which had kidnapped its members. Each narrative stops dead from time to time, becoming a cliff-hanger as in a soap opera, which is irritating.

Fawcett’s expedition, underfunded and starving, is just sad. The banker’s expedition approaches farce, but that of Grann, a staff writer on the New Yorker, has some funny moments. All alone, having lost his guide and exhausted his supply of food and water, he sees things moving in the undergrowth. ‘And for the first time I asked myself, What the hell am I doing here?’ Later, in the depths of the jungle, he comes on some Indians watching the cartoon Woody Woodpecker on a TV powered by an electric generator.

But the most fascinating part of his book is when he writes about recent archaeological discoveries. Modern opinion had swung against Fawcett and his lost cities, for how could naked hunter-gatherers have built such places, and where could they have found stone in a rain-forest? They didn’t realise that what they were encountering was a world in ruins. For it seems the cities are there, only not in the form Fawcett envisaged.

An anthropologist from the University of Vermont, having taken up residence among the Indians, has found 20 pre-Columban settlements of enormous size in hill clearings in the jungle. These, made not of stone but of earth and wood, with pallisades and defensive ditches a mile in diameter, date back to the Dark Ages and had populations of up to 5,000 inhabitants. Other, even older, settlements, have yielded pottery 2,000 years older than anything so far found in the Americas, all of which suggests that in the Mato Grosso there was an original civilisation that spread outwards.

The Colonel was right all along, which makes it even sadder.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Civilisation, Exploration, Latin America, Nature, Non-fiction, Science, Travel